Many readers will be familiar with The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, by Walter Evans-Wentz. They might even recall that, in his investigation of Welsh fairy lore, he spoke to a Welsh Justice of the Peace from Carmarthen called David Williams, who proved a rich source of faery facts, despite his sober and respectable position. In particular, he told Evans-Wentz about the king and queen of the tylwyth teg, whom he named as Gwydion ab Don and his wife Gwenhidw. Gwydion is a character straight out of the Mabinogion, and he is said to live amongst the stars in Caer Gwydion, one of several magical faery fortresses that are mentioned in Welsh legend. His wife, meanwhile, is connected to the fluffy white clouds that appear in fine weather and which are called ‘the sheep of Gwenhidw.’
This is a very pretty image, and Evans-Wentz goes on to speculate that this queen has some connection to King Arthur’s queen Guinevere, who is properly Gwenhwyfar, ‘the white ghost’ or spirit. Ghostly ‘white ladies’ are very common in British folklore, often associated with wells and streams.
The real Gwenhidw
Mr David Williams JP gave Evans-Wentz a very useful lead, but what he had learned as a boy from his mother was a very confused version of the authentic tradition.
Gwenhidw (or Gwenhidwy/ Gwenhudwy) is well known in Welsh folklore. She is, actually, a morforwyn- a mermaid. Her name means ‘white enchantment’ or ‘white spell.’ In modern stories she owns a herd of white horses that run along the crests of the waves. In older versions of the tale, the foaming waves were her ewes and every ninth wave was the ram of the flock. This conception of the incoming tide is preserved in a sixteenth century poem by Rhys Llywd ap Rhys ap Rhicert in which he described a boat trip to the monastic island of Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) from the Lleyn Peninsula. The passage is notoriously choppy and he described the sea as:
“haid o ddefaid Gwenhudwy/ a naw hwrdd yn un a hwy”
(a flock of ewes of Gwenhidwy and nine rams with them.”
Another poem of a comparably early date refers to Gwenhidw growing a beard (Ni adaf mal Gwenhudwy/ Ar vy min dyfu barf mwy– “Like G., I no longer grow a beard on my lip.”) This seems to be an example of the quite widespread British tradition that mermaids are (contrary to popular misconceptions) pretty unattractive to look at- and possibly not even very different to tell from mermen.
Elsewhere in Welsh tradition a flood is termed ‘Gwenhudwy’s oppression’ and the sea is called her ‘plain.’ Lastly, an Elizabethan poem contrasts a man called Rhys Cain to our heroine, saying that he is a ‘feeble magician’ compared to her (wan hydol i Wenhidw).
What can we conclude from these scattered references? It emerges that Gwenhidw was once well-known in Wales as a powerful and fearsome mermaid, someone to be dreaded and respected. If insulted, her vengeance might be savage.
Figuratively, at least, Gwenhidw had flocks of sheep. At some point (though perhaps only in the family of David Williams JP) a misconception arose and the rolling breakers of the angry sea were substituted by benign fair weather clouds. This, along with her marriage to Gwydion, demoted Gwenhidw, but she deserves to be restored to her far more prominent position as sorceress and queen.
An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse. See my books page for more information.